Vesalius, Sixteenth Century German Bookbinding Thread and Dissection Tools

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543, 235. Source:

While looking at the surgical tools in De Humani Corporis, I ran across an interesting bit of information from a Cambridge University Online Exhibition. The image is huge, and can be examined in detail. In the text, Vesalius mentions that either silk threads or bookbinder’s threads could be used to prepare a cadaver. In his opinion, German bookbinding thread is the best quality, since it is stronger, thinner, and more well-twisted than thread from other countries. I haven’t noticed this about German 16th C. sewing thread (in large part due to the inflexible spines, see the post below) but it is certainly true for their typically tightly cabled sewing supports. One takeaway is that the thread bookbinders used was the best quality available. Vesalius also describes heating a needle  in order to bend it into a “C” or parenthesis shape, a practice bookbinders still perform today. I’m assuming these bent needles, labeled “N” are stuck in bookbinding thread wrapped up in a bun shape.  This is likely the earliest image of bookbinding thread.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the binding of books in human skin, has a lurid and enduring fascination. Here; however, we have the cadaver fabricated using a bookbinding material and borrowed or shared tools: Bibliodermic anthropegy???


More tools appear on the title page of this book, where a man is stropping or sharpening his razor under the dissection table. The portrait of Vesalius also contains a partially hidden razor lying on the table as he holds body parts of a cadaver. In this case, the razor represents his practical knowledge and experience. His intellectual and theoretical prowess is symbolized by the inkwell and manuscript page on the table behind arm.

The Cambridge exhibition considers that these are ordinary tools, altered by Vesalius, a testament to his manual dexterity. He didn’t need “fancy” instruments, but could use commonly available ones. I wonder about this interpretation, though. Given how many tools even today are shared — and altered — by many crafts, I wonder how many specialist instruments were made only for surgeons. There is no mention of this kind of specialization in J.B. Himsworth’s 1953 The Story of Cutlery, Although it is an excellent resource, it is far from comprehensive.


Detail: Title page, Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543. Source:


Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543, xii. Source:




Knockoff of Amman’s Bookbinder

Der Buchbinder  in Eweloser Schaw-Platz oder Newer Schreib-Kalender Auff das Gnaden-Jahr M.DCC.XXIII. Prognosis Astrologica.... 1723.  Image courtesy Musinsky Rare Books.

Jost Amman’s book of trades is iconic, or perhaps even a bit cliched depending on your point of view, and it is commonly used as a representation of  ‘hand-work’ irrespective of the time period under consideration.  The plates of Diderot are similarly used.  Yet these woodcuts, and an unknown number of copies made throughout the centuries, are important documents of technical aspects of many crafts. The illustration of the bookbinder, above, is from a 1723 calander,  the only edition and only copy located, according to Nina Musinsky. She describes this as “a crudely printed but appealing calendar/ almanac, illustrated with primitive wood-cut scenes of trades and professions. The printer Salomon appears to have conceived his Schreib-Kalender as a vehicle for the lively woodcuts, which may be the work of a single artist (IGS).”

On the top: Der Buchbinder, Jost Amman, 1568. Image courtesy Peter Verheyen.

On the bottom: Der Buchbinder, artist unknown, 1723. Image courtesy Musinsky Rare Books.

Often discrete changes contain valuable information: in this image, for example, the beating hammer looks like it is shaped like a double faced one, rather than the single faced style depicted in Amman’s original. Small details like these can help to help to date changes in tool styles. It also appears the sewing supports are wide tapes or thongs rather than cord?  Is the artist of this woodcut adding details from his own time rather than straightforwardly copying Amman?  It is often debatable if these details are oversights, reflections of contemporary practices and tools, mistakes, or simply crude renderings.

More broadly, the reuse of this image, 150 years after its creation, invites speculation about the long tradition of depicting hand work as archaic. As Tom Conroy mentions in his comments to the original post about this image, about half of the tools are for shaping wood boards, a binding style that was rarely used by the 1720’s.  Likely, this image would have already seemed old fashioned to a early 18th century audience. Yet the appeal — and the reuse —  of Amman’s illustrations continue.

Nina: many thanks for bringing this image to my attention and allowing it to be published.

For more information contact: nina (at)

PS. A calendar such as this would make a wonderful christmas gift for a certain NYC based book conservator with a keen interest in the history of bookbinding tools.

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